It’s almost Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost went wild, which brings to fiery minds the thought of not only that particular world-turned-upside-down event but assorted others a whole lot like unto it, which other events alas never got their own red-letter day on the calendar, even though they probably deserved to, and so it occurred to me, why not just piggyback them all onto Pentecost, given their decidedly Pentecost-like qualities, and commemorate them all together, and not just as something dead and done and so last year, but as something with very possibly bone-shaking and world-rocking consequences right here and now? Especially my two very favorites: Peter’s dream, and Paul’s vision.
Oh, Peter had the dream, yes he did, but Paul—well, he had the vision. And I’m not talking here about his Damascus-going literal vision, but his plain old figurative one, regarding what exactly ought to be done about Peter’s odd dream. And that plain old figurative vision was this: if you’re going to go to people you think are strangers and invite them to join you and stay with you, the way Peter was suggesting, then you have to really go to them, instead of expecting them to do things just the way you do. Yes sir, that was the really big piece of seeing, right there.
Oh sure, Peter’s dream was big too, so big that at first it was like Moses slapping Pharaoh with a clever new plague, or something right out of a freaky psycho horror Chucky movie, what with all those forbidden-to-eat animals floating breezily down on a big sheet straight at Peter’s head, which when you think about it was just about the worst dream a guy who’d been forbidden to eat or even touch those sheet-riding animals could have imagined, something very much akin to the time big Ricky O’Connor stuffed a cigarette butt down my skinny little throat because I told him there was no way in the world I would ever smoke or even touch a cigarette, that’s how pure I was, and then Ricky went and unpurified me by making me dang near swallow the filthy thing.
Things got even worse in the dream when Peter heard a voice sounding like it was meant to be God’s, egging him on and saying, Go ahead and eat, Peter, it’s okay, plus it’s lunchtime and you’re hungry, but the totally flummoxed Peter was thinking, Absolutely no way could this be God, because God has already said (i.e. in holy writ), Don’t you dare eat those animals. Or at most Peter was thinking: Well if it is God, then it has to be some kind of test to see whether I’ll do what He’s already told me to do even when He is apparently telling me to do the opposite; or Maybe this is God trying to trick me, saying to his helpers, Let’s mess with Peter the way we did with Job, in fact let’s get James Earl Jones to do the voice and make it really convincing; or Maybe God is just saying, Let’s let the devil do his angel-of-light thing, to make it seem like it’s okay to eat forbidden-to-eat animals after all, even though it’s actually not.
All that lotto-ball-style jumbling in Peter’s spinning head goes exceeding far toward explaining why the voice had to tell him three times to eat up, and why pure Peter said, No I won’t eat anything unclean, prompting the voice to snap back, Don’t go calling unclean what is every bit as clean as you, until finally on the third time Peter just barely (maybe centimeterly) got the nerve to take the very big mental leap necessary to think Wow, maybe this really is God telling me to do something He’s told me not to do. Which leaping was made a whole lot easier by the dream ending and a relieved Peter realizing that he wouldn’t have to actually eat those animals after all: nope, in real life they were still forbidden. They’d just been a purely metaphorical sort of cinematic-device to get unforgettably across to Peter a message that was at least as big as actually eating the animals would have been: namely, that all the people Peter and other Jesus-believing Jews had been absolutely certain were unclean (i.e. Gentiles) actually weren’t, and could therefore hear the good news that Jesus-believing Jews had so far been spreading just among themselves, and even join the Jesus-believing community too.
Yes, that world-turned-upside-down realization regarding the Jesus-believing viability and overall worth of Gentiles was an extremely huge deal all by itself. “God has put no difference between us and them,” was the stunning conclusion Peter came to from his close encounter with the surely odiferous sheet, which conclusion ran exactly opposite of what he’d always assumed God had said. But how in the world was he going to convince other Jesus-believing Jews of this? It would take something special for sure, and luckily he got it, in a big Pentecost-style outpouring that overcame them when he told about his dream. Yes, agreed the others, Gentiles could hear the good news too, and join them! Who’d have ever mind-blowingly thought?!
But then along came Paul, saying that as mind-blowing as that change of mind was, well it was more of a little poof, to get things going.
See, what Peter and most Jesus-believing Jews were saying with their new revelationary idea about Gentiles, saw Paul, was this: you are free to join us now, and isn’t that great—all you have to do to do that is be like us. Which is namely, Jesus-believing Jews. Just believe all the things we do, and do all the things we do too: i.e. don’t eat the forbidden animals that floated down in Peter’s purely metaphorical dream, and you males get yourselves circumcised, and keep our Sabbath, and don’t stay married to any unbelievers, and a whole lot more. Just turn into one of us!
Though a strict Jesus-believing Jew himself, Gentile-experienced Paul saw a big problem looming right there, which was where his plain old figurative sort of vision came in, but good lord that figurative sort turned out to be even bigger than his Damascus-going sort, even though it didn’t come with any heavenly voices or Pentecost-like outpourings, or for that matter even with any approval from the top leaders of the Jesus-believing Jews in Jerusalem. Instead it seemed to come from somewhere inside Paul, probably just from living among all those Gentiles and getting to know them and wanting to take the good news to them and having a real strong sense of exactly how that ought to be done.
And that vision was even more specifically this: if we care enough about Gentiles to want them to join us, then we can’t just say, “Just be like us and do what we do,” and expect them to come running. We have to say something more inviting and hospitable, like, “We so much want you to hear this good news and so much want you to join our community and would so much value what you bring to it and even how you would no doubt help reshape it that we’re going to go your way a little too. In fact even a lot.” Because if we just tell Gentiles to start accepting and doing some of the things we do, even things we think are absolutely God-givenly unmissable, well the vast majority of them will never even hear us get to the truly absolutely unmissable thing, which is the Jesus-believing. Because see, to them a lot of the things we do make us totally strange too.
Paul and a few other Jesus-believing-Gentile-experienced Jews, not to mention Gentiles themselves, were sure that Gentiles could believe in Jesus just fine even if they showed their belief in their own strange Gentile-looking ways. Oh, Paul et al. weren’t going to give up everything to Gentiles of course, especially not Jesus-believing. But they were willing to give up insisting on certain things, and not little piddly things either, but big aforementioned identity-giving absolutely-unmissable non-negotiable fixed-forever God-given things that they and most others had assumed always had and always would accompany proper Jesus-believing. It was up to them to go to Gentiles, Paul more or less reasoned, instead of up to Gentiles just to come to them.
Well you can imagine the fuss that this kicked up among plenty of Jesus-believing Jews, including a very torn-from-all-sides Peter: I mean, he’d had the big Gentile-loving dream in the first place, but he wasn’t exactly comfortable going as far as Paul was now going, which you could tell from how Paul practically made fun of him in Galatians 2—oh, Peter ate Gentile-style once when he was with some Jesus-believing Gentiles out in Antioch, but then as soon as his fellow leaders back in Jerusalem heard about it he got all sheepish again! Those fellow leaders already had plenty of reason to furrow their brows about Paul, given all the metaphorical and possibly literal stones he’d thrown their way before his Damascus-going vision, and now here he was changing their precious religion too?! Plus they’d had enough on their hands trying to smooth things over between Greek-speaking Jesus-believing Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jesus-believing Jews, and now short little bald(ing) unibrowed bow-legged Paul was going to complicate things further with all this Gentile-conceding stuff?! Who did he think he was?!
Oh, some Jesus-believing Jews probably expected that opening their community up to Gentiles might mean having to make a few concessions to them here and there, like what time or what day they worshiped, or exactly how they worshiped, or what languages they spoke, and of course it would take a LOT of patience to show Gentiles how to do all the unmissable and non-negotiable Jesus-believing things just right. And at a conference held to try to solve this whole Gentile-loving mess, leaders in Jerusalem (including Peter) even gave up some serious ground on the absolutely unmissable and theretofore non-negotiable matter of circumcision: okay, Jesus-believing Gentile males wouldn’t have to do that, maybe that was asking a little too much. But especially the most devout Jesus-believing Jews said there couldn’t be any budging on other non-negotiable things, like the Sabbath, and what you ate and drank, etc., because how could you say you really believed in Jesus or loved God if you didn’t do just right the things that He had told them to do?
Paul kept on budging anyway, at least for Jesus-believing Gentiles, saying in Galatians for instance that Gentiles didn’t have to keep the Jewish dietary code after all. Sure, Jesus-believing Jews should of course keep it, and all the other things they kept too, but again for Jesus-believing Gentiles those things just didn’t matter to their believing, or their love for God. Still, here was the thing, said Paul: for all their differences, all Jesus-believers—Jew and Gentile—could be part of the same community, and not just in the abstract sense of community, or the classic separate-but-equal-congregations sense, but in the same actual physical elbow-bumping literal sense. They didn’t have to be strangers and foreigners to each other, because what made them familiar and united them and what even made the community a community was their mutual hope in Jesus and the love and respect for each other that ought to flow from that, even more than the many particular God-given ways they thought everybody ought to be showing that.
So for instance, said Paul, if you don’t eat certain animals, that’s just fine, but don’t despise believers who do, and don’t say they’re not true believers; and if you do eat certain animals then don’t despise believers who don’t. If you show your belief by treating the Sabbath as a special holy day, fine, but don’t despise believers who prefer to treat every day as equally holy; and vice versa too. And so on. In fact maybe the Pentecost-like spirit that Jesus-believers so loved and very occasionally felt came especially not when they were showing their belief the same exact way but precisely when they weren’t and then realized that their non-sameness didn’t really matter. Oh, they were still different from each other all right, still Jesus-believing Jew and Gentile, Bond and Free, Black and White, Male and Female, Young and Old, and So On Forever and Ever. It was just that those differences didn’t make a difference any more. Just like on Pentecost, they understood each other even though they were speaking different languages.
It wasn’t any surprise at all when Jesus-believing Gentiles started arguing real soon among themselves too (e.g. as in Paul’s letter to Timothy), over just exactly what was the right unmissable non-negotiable Jesus-believing God-given Gentile way to show your hope in and love for Jesus. And Jesus-believing Gentiles would keep arguing with Jesus-believing Jews too, each of them making fun of or fuming over the way the other did things. Face it, it’s not easy to see somebody claiming to be a part of the religion you love who does things differently from you. Even saintly John the Revelator a generation or two later went all Apocalyptic on Paul’s disciples, charging them with corrupting the original Jesus-believing God-given pure religion for the sake of some Gentiles, which corrupting was sure to bring about the end of the world not at some distant future time but very possibly tomorrow, and not in some distant place but right here in the hellish Roman Empire, because of what Paul and other fake Jews had done to the religion, which was sure to bring down the wrath of God, thank you very much Paul.
But if Paul hadn’t have done what he did then Jesus-believing would have been a pretty tiny and very-closely-held enterprise. Some people, like John the Revelator, would have been fine with that: better pure and small than corrupted and big, he would’ve thought. But Paul thought all sorts of people could benefit from the good news, and he had a different vision from John of what doing that meant, and what pure meant, and it didn’t involve never allowing anyone to diverge from the way you did things or always standing up for and defending your way as the only way or even avoiding the people you thought were impure, but instead involved sitting down and figuring out how you could tweak your ways a little here and even make a wholesale change there and okay even rethink even certain apparently non-negotiable unmissable ways in order to help accommodate people you’d thought were strangers, because you were sure that your mutual hope and love in Jesus rose above all that, or better yet underlay it, like some big pillow, softening everything.
Still, over the Christian centuries the Peter-like tradition dominated at least the narrative of what the religion was ideally about, which was namely heroically standing up and defending and never ever bending assorted unmissable and non-negotiable ways of being a Jesus-believer. But the quieter and also less-obviously-heroic Paul-like tradition lived on too, at least in messy practice, still asking as usual, what can we do to accommodate your ways and help you feel welcome in our community? Which if you’re used to hearing exclusively the Peter-like tradition is about as stunning as Peter’s big dream was. Paul’s tradition wasn’t always as easy to notice over the centuries, because it happened mostly in the doing rather than the preaching and so you have to look at doing over long periods of time to spot it, but it was there, whenever new groups and customs and ideas and understanding were bumped up against and worked with.
Paul’s tradition hasn’t exactly dominated the ideal narrative in Mormon centuries either, as any actual accommodating of new groups, or accommodating ourselves to the wider world so as not to be excessively removed from it, tends to get forgotten pretty fast, or if it’s too obvious to get forgotten it gets the way more acceptable label of continuing revelation (most famously with polygamy and race), which label Paul would have surely been wholeheartedly happy to apply to what he was doing too, even though he might have had a slightly different idea from many moderns of exactly how that label worked, in that his involved a lot of creativity and imagination and initiative-taking in figuring out how to work strangers into the Jesus-believing world, instead of just waiting to be told.
Come to think of it, though, that sort of initiative-taking was basically how Spencer Kimball said revelation worked during his own world-turned-upside-down experience too, about race; thus he realized that if there were going to be a revelation on the matter then it depended in a big way on him opening his mind and heart to reconsidering and reimagining and even giving up his old absolutely certain assumptions, which process led him to see that God had put no difference between himself and those he’d been sure were strangers and foreigners, and then to actually wanting a revelation affirming that they were in fact full-fledged fellow-citizens[fn 1]: “Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired,” he concluded.[fn 2] And he didn’t seem to mean desired exclusively by someone in his leading position either, because he knew very well that all sorts of ordinary believers had been desiring and feeling the very same thing he was.
In fact anyone who lived through that whole experience in the 1960s and 70s probably got a whole new insight into how the Pentecost-like event following Peter’s dream probably went too—i.e. that maybe a very good reason Peter’s fellow-believers were so glad to hear and accept his dream was that Peter was very likely not the only one having it, either among Jesus-believers or even Gentiles themselves. In fact the Spirit-moved Gentile Cornelius came right out and said as much, and the Spirit-moved missionary Philip came right out and did as much, baptizing a Spirit-moved Ethiopian eunuch—the very first (and very stranger) Gentile convert—even before Cornelius or Peter had had their dreams, and even before the community had given its official stamp-of-approval to doing such a strange thing.
Oh, believers are probably always going to argue over how much you can accommodate the strangers you hope will join and stay with you, and over just what exactly it takes to be a good Jesus-believer, just like they have from the start. And it’s probably even okay to discuss that friendily (sic), as long as it doesn’t get nasty[fn 3], and as long as everyone understands that your unity and mutual respect as Jesus-believers are even more important than the particular thing you’re arguing about[fn 4], and that Jesus-believing unity doesn’t even actually come through everybody thinking and doing everything the same or even in your differences somehow magically disappearing, but instead through everyone realizing that every single different and sometimes oddball part of the believing body you all belong to, even the apparently useless appendix-like parts or unheralded little-toe parts or even very least pure don’t-need-mentioning parts, are all somehow important and necessary and therefore equally valuable[fn 5].
Looked at like that, Paul-style, well then accommodating and sitting-down and maybe even compromising can actually have some good connotations instead of bad, and be called something nice, like religious acts of love or at-one-ing, instead of something ugly, like corrupting or watering-down or caving-in.
That was Paul’s big upsetting vision all right, and it would be every bit as upsetting today too, if it was put to work with the same sort of gusto that Paul put it to. But of course, upsetting is the nature of Pentecost, and things like unto it.
[fn 1] “I had a great deal to fight…myself largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.” Edward Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies, 47/2 (2008): 48. Strangers and foreigners and fellow-citizens of course from Ephesians 2.
[fn 2] Ibid., p. 46.
[fn3] Basing myself here on the account of Jesus’s visit in 3 Nephi 11.
[fn 4] Basing myself here on Jesus’s reply to the question of what was the great commandment, which answer basically was, well there are actually two, namely Love God and Love Your Neighbor, making them practically matrimonially linked; which is reinforced by I John 4 saying that you can’t say you love God if you don’t love your brother, and Paul saying in I Cor 13 that you can be the most rule-keeping and spiritually gifted person in the world but if you don’t love your neighbor well nothing else really matters, and Paul saying in Galatians 5:14 that all the law was fulfilled in this word: love your neighbor as yourself.
[fn 5] Romans 12, which doesn’t specifically mention the appendix etc.